Birmingham celebrates its place in history with Civil Rights National Monument dedication ceremony

Birmingham celebrates its place in history with Civil Rights National Monument dedication ceremony
Foot soldiers from the Civil Rights Movement and members of the National Park Service join Birmingham Mayor William Bell, second from right, in unveiling a sign designating the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, consisting of several important landmarks. (Monique Jones/The Birmingham Times)

For Carol Jenkins, niece of entrepreneur A.G. Gaston and Minnie Gaston, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument dedication celebration on April 15 was memorable.

“I was so moved. Every minute of it was an affirmation of the work my aunt and uncle did in the city of Birmingham for 50, 60, 70 years,” she said. “…This was their life’s work. They loved this city, and to get this type of payback … is extraordinary.”

Most of the landmarks included in the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument are within easy walking distance of one another. (Jet Lowe/Library of Congress)

For Mayor William Bell, the celebration was “the beginning of a new recognition” for Birmingham and those who, as part of the civil rights movement, helped usher in changes for human rights around the world.

“We wanted to take the opportunity to tell our own story … of how black and white (citizens and) various religious organizations came together to … change the society that would (permit) a church to be bombed on a Sunday morning, that would kill four little innocent girls and maim so many others,” Bell said.

The community celebration marking the establishment of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument was the culmination of years of work on behalf of Bell, his staff, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, the National Park Service and National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The monument includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), the A.G. Gaston Motel and portions of the 4th Avenue Business District.

A survivor speaks

Carolyn McKinstry, one of the survivors of the Sixteenth Street Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, was among those who addressed the crowd outside the BCRI.

“We are here to reflect and to lament the sacredness of this time and place in history,” said McKinstry, adding that the monument is a reminder for citizens in Birmingham and across the nation to take up the call to “end racial hatred in our lifetime.”

“I am grateful to God to stand as a survivor and as a witness to that tragedy, but also as an ambassador of Birmingham’s ongoing story, proclaiming our legacy of hope and love that was born on Sept. 15, and to remind us all of this fact – that love forgives,” she said.

Birmingham’s answer

Carolyn McKinstry, who survived the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, speaks at Saturday’s dedication ceremony. (Monique Jones/The Birmingham Times)

Odessa Woolfolk, founding board chairwoman of the BCRI, said the monument honors the sacrifices and bravery of the foot soldiers who “are the true heroes of the movement.” “These young people … did more to change America than all the rhetoric that was written and stated,” she said.  “… We hope that this (monument) will create … models for applying the lessons to current and future civil and human rights struggles here and around the world and, perhaps, we shall visit anew the question that Dr. (Martin Luther) King raised 50 years (ago) when he asked, ‘Where do we go from here – chaos or community?’ That question needs to be answered even now.”

Birmingham City Councilor Sheila Tyson mentioned her personal connection to the monument.

“I am proud to be from this city, raised by a foot soldier, raised by a woman who was in the trenches (and) raised by the unsung heroes that we hear nothing about,” she said. “We need to make sure the world (and) our children know this city is here.”

Story of catalysts

The Rev. Arthur Price, pastor of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, said the monument helps Birmingham continue to tell its story.

“It’s a story about catalysts of change,” he said. “Because of what happened here in Birmingham, it changed our thinking, it challenged our theology and it caused us to be thankful.”

The idea of creating a national monument began years ago, said Bell, noting that the effort was spurred on by public criticism in 2013 over the city’s failure to restore the A.G. Gaston Motel.

“It was due criticism,” he said. “When we looked to find the funds to do what was necessary to bring it back, it (didn’t) make sense to just repair it today and 20, 30 years from now, we still have the same problem.”

Attendees included St. Paul United Methodist Church Pastor Horace Blount, Birmingham City Councilor Jay Roberson and members of the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The epicenter

The event culminated with the unveiling of the official monument sign.

Sewell was unable to attend because of the funeral of her father.

What happened at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other Birmingham civil rights landmarks moved the nation more rapidly toward a huge transformation on human rights issues. (File)

In a statement, Sewell said, “Birmingham was the epicenter of America’s civil rights movement, and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument recognizes the remarkable contributions made by the foot soldiers and leaders of the movement.

“We can never repay the debts we owe to those who fought, bled and died to secure the blessings of liberty, equality and justice for all Americans during the struggle for civil and voting rights,” Sewell continued. “The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument will help preserve their stories for future generations. I am thrilled at the investments the National Park Service is making in Birmingham as part of the national commitment to protecting the legacy of our nation’s civil rights heroes.”

In 2016, Sewell introduced legislation, supported by the entire Alabama congressional delegation, urging creation of a national civil rights monument in Birmingham. The efforts culminated in President Barack Obama on Jan. 12, 2017, establishing the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

This story originally appeared on The Birmingham Times’ website.

Related Stories